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Sir Charles Godfray on How to Start a Virtuous Cycle for Food Sustainability

This story is part of our live coverage of the inaugural Arrell Food Summit (May 22 to 24). The summit gathers some of the world’s eminent thinkers to discuss the future of food and agriculture.

Back in the 1970s, we were alarmed over what looked like endless population growth. The prediction of a dystopian, overcrowded 2020, with New Yorkers sleeping in stairwells and eating [spoiler alert for the 1973 film Soylent Green] processed human flesh, seemed imminent.

“40 years ago, when we talked about the problems of population growth, the narrative was very much, ‘We must do things to stop population growing,’” recalls Sir Charles Godfray, professor of population biology at Oxford.

“It was very coercive. Very much the rich world telling developing countries they needed to reduce population growth.”

Over the past few decades, global anti-poverty and health initiatives have changed that conversation.

“The narrative today is much more positive — that if one brings people out of poverty, if ones educates kids (especially girls), if one provides access to reproductive health care, then naturally fertility goes down. And you get a virtuous circle of economic growth and more people moving out of poverty.”

Looking forward, we have our work cut out for us addressing the complex web of food insecurity.

“There will be more people. They will be richer, demanding diets that require more resources to reduce. And on the supply side, we’ll have challenges such as competition for water and climate change. We have to produce more food, we have to consume less of the food that requires the most resources. We have to bear down on waste, remembering it’s not a silver bullet. And we have to make certain our governance and distribution in food, our global trade in food, is fit for purpose and works to address food security. The challenge is so great we have to work on all possible fronts.”